(By Erica Andersen)
“A great mentor wants you to succeed, and he or she will actively support your success with words and action. The great mentor will never be envious or feel threatened by your growth; he or she will congratulate you on your triumphs and help you recover from your setbacks. The generous mentor will make connections or offer resources that could be useful to you whenever he or she can. Most important, a generous mentor believes in your potential, and communicates that to you freely and with hope. The generous mentor supports you to become the person you want to become“.
Over the past decade or two, the idea of mentoring has become increasingly popular. Lots of companies now offer mentoring programs, where executive-level professionals support their younger colleagues’ success. Mentoring programs have been created specifically for women, people of color, the disabled, and other groups for whom having a supportive and knowledgeable advisor might be especially helpful. Youth mentoring has evolved as a means to help young people understand how to operate in the grown-up world.
However, the tradition of having someone to support you with his or her wisdom and experience is probably as old as the human race. In any tribal society, younger members depended upon the older members to pass on their hard-won knowledge and insight about how to stay safe, find food and shelter, understand the world around them.
The word “mentor” as applied to such a person has its roots in Greek mythology. In the Odyssey, Mentor was a character who advised and protected Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Then, in 1699, a novel called Les Aventures de Télémaque, (“The Adventures of Telemachus”), included the character of Mentor as Telemachus’ tutor. He was the hero of the story, and the modern usage of the term “mentor” seems to have arisen from that book.
So, finding and having a mentor isn’t just a modern fad; it’s a time-honored practice that has served us well for many thousands of years. And as with most things, there are good mentors and there are not-so-good mentors. What can you do to make sure you’re getting one of the good ones?
Over the years, as I’ve observed mentoring relationships of various sorts, and have been asked by others to mentor them, I’ve noticed some qualities that seem to distinguish truly good and helpful mentors from those who are indifferent – or even harmful. Based on that experience, here are five core qualities to look for in a mentor:
Self-reflection: If you want someone to share their wisdom with you, they need to have wisdom to share. Some people simply don’t spend much time thinking about their own experience; a person can be quite knowledgeable and successful without having reflected much on how they got where they are today. However, just hearing about what someone has done is much less valuable than hearing about why they did it, and about their understanding of why it worked or didn’t work. My father, one of my most important mentors, was great at seeing the key patterns and principles in his own experience, and passing those on to me. His insights about his life have helped me avoid innumerable pitfalls in my own life.
Discretion: In a good mentor relationship, you need to be able to be honest about your own life and circumstances – and you need to be confident that your revelations won’t go beyond your mentor. If he or she can’t be trusted to keep confidences, your relationship will be superficial at best – damaging at worst. I know of one mentee who shared with his mentor, in confidence, his frustrations about his boss’ poor delegation — only to discover, when he was later called on the carpet, that the mentor had told his boss. The mentor said that she’d done it to “create more openness between them” – but, unfortunately, that strategy backfired, and the mentee was left with a worse relationship with his boss than before.
Honesty: If you’re brave enough to ask your mentor for advice, he or she needs to be brave enough to give you a straight answer. If you’re contemplating taking a new job, for instance, and you explain the situation and ask for your mentor’s point of view – he or she should give it to you, unvarnished. I was in that situation a few years ago, and told my mentee that it didn’t sound like a great opportunity; I thought she was overqualified, and would soon be bored with the job. She responded that, while she agreed, she believed she could quickly get promoted. I encouraged her to look more closely at that part of the organization and decide whether that was a realistic expectation, or wishful thinking on her part. She ultimately chose not to go for the job, because on deeper exploration it looked as though there was actually very little possibility for advancement.
Curiosity: This one may seem counter-intuitive – isn’t it the mentee’s responsibility to be curious about the mentor? Yes. And…if the mentor isn’t curious about you: who you are, how you’re wired, what’s important to you, what you’ve done so far and how it’s working for you – it’s unlikely his or her advice will be very helpful. It will more likely be generic wisdom that won’t be targeted to you at all. One mentee was thrilled to be connected with a very senior, very experienced executive in his organization. But after the first few months of being dazzled by the big names and big experiences the mentor threw around, the mentee realized that she knew nothing about him, and wasn’t sharing anything much that he could apply to his own career.
Generosity of Spirit: This is essential. A great mentor wants you to succeed, and he or she will actively support your success with words and action. The great mentor will never be envious or feel threatened by your growth; he or she will congratulate you on your triumphs and help you recover from your setbacks. The generous mentor will make connections or offer resources that could be useful to you whenever he or she can. Most important, a generous mentor believes in your potential, and communicates that to you freely and with hope. The generous mentor supports you to become the person you want to become.
Having a mentor can be helpful; having a mentor who is self-reflective, discreet, honest, curious, and generous can be life-changing.
I’d love to hear about any experiences you’ve had with a mentor, good or bad, and any other advice you might have for choosing a great one.
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